April 30, 2024

A Climate Ready Schools guide to child-friendly participatory design


A critical component of the Climate Ready Schools process involves including children meaningfully in the visioning and design of their new school grounds.

Evergreen works with school boards and school communities to facilitate the meaningful involvement of children and young people in a child-friendly participatory design process to inform the transformation of school grounds into nature-rich climate-resilient outdoor environments for learning and play.

Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools initiative views school grounds as valuable assets with potential to have a positive influence on student development. School grounds represent significant public land holdings that have enormous potential to positively impact learning outcomes, physical and mental health and wellbeing and to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate by improving stormwater management and cooling sites with shade. There are few examples of traditional Canadian school grounds that have realized this potential. Climate Ready Schools employs innovations in design, construction, community engagement and professional development to produce a broad suite of benefits for students, communities and the environment.  and the environment.  

With public schools in almost every neighbourhood across the country, the potential to positively impact every community is significant. Climate Ready Schools raise the bar on school ground design, management and outdoor play and learning in Canada and set the stage for broad, scalable change. A critical component of the Climate Ready Schools process involves including children meaningfully in the visioning and design of their new school grounds. We call this child-friendly participatory design. 

What is Child-Friendly Participatory Design? 

Evergreen’s child-friendly participatory design approach involves working closely with children and young people to prioritize their involvement in long-term planning, design and decision-making. The participation of children and young people inform the design, planning and delivery of public engagement opportunities that are accessible and appealing to youth. They are designed to be: 

  • Interactive, fun and age-appropriate experiences that invite meaningful contribution and participation such as model making, mapping, or arts-based activities (rather than PowerPoint presentations). 
  • Scheduled at times that are ideal for children and young people. 
  • Located where children and young people spend their time (e.g., a local school, park, or community centre). 
  • Inclusive and flexible to children’s differences in abilities, learning styles and experience (e.g., activities of different kinds offered in shorter sessions so children can choose the approach that is best for them to share their thoughts and ideas). 
  • Responsive to local community needs and interests, inviting a connection to place (e.g., incorporating cultural and location-specific practices that evolve according to the response and needs of the community). 

Guiding principles for a Child-Friendly Participatory Design process 

  • Foster a culture of participatory practice. 
  • Build capacity with children and adults. 
  • Empower children to lead. 
  • Co-create child friendly tools. 
  • Include children in decision making and evaluation. 
  • Create a mindset of inclusion and empathy. 

What does Child-Friendly Participatory Design look like? 

Children and young people contribute their perspectives and ideas through observations and gain skills in collaborative decision-making, collecting and analysing data. They are also engaged to shape the process and lead activities that might include focus groups, guided tours, workshops and community events. 

Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them and to have their views considered and taken seriously.

- Article 12 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

What are the benefits of Child-Friendly Decision Making? 

Diagram of the benefits of child friendly decision making

Participatory processes with young people cultivate citizens who know how to work collaboratively to create a more sustainable future.

- Placemaking with Children and Youth: Participatory Practices for Planning Sustainable Communities

What are the steps to successful Child-Friendly Participatory Design? 

Together, the following three steps provide useful guidelines for designers and communities to create neighbourhoods where families truly want to live. 

When young people are valued partners and can help design their outdoor spaces, there are numerous positive impacts, including:   

  • Building relationships and connections within the wider community, to each other and to the place itself 
  • Gaining the skills and confidence to help reframe community building and embed inclusive practices in decision-making  
  • Engaging meaningfully on the discussions of sustainable infrastructure, health and wellbeing, inclusion and accessibility, resilience and safety within their communities 

Step 1 – Empathize and Reflect 

Kicking off the participatory design process with empathy and reflection activities can help to ensure an inclusive design. Empathy promotes inclusivity by considering the diverse perspectives and experiences of different user groups. It is a skill that allows students to understand and share the same feelings that others feel. Empathy also fuels creativity by inspiring students to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions that truly address users’ needs and aspirations. 

Step 2 – Gather Information and Interpret Ideas 

Students reflect on how they and others are currently using outdoor spaces on their school ground and in their neighbourhood. Students reflect on what is currently missing that they and others would love to be able to do in the spaces. This prepares students for Step 3 and their participation in a Design Jam, a fun and creative engagement experience that supports the development of concepts and design solutions. 

Step 3 – Develop Visions and Concepts 

This step applies the learning and knowledge that students gained from the activities in Step 1 and 2. Through an immersive Design Jam, students begin to develop visions and concepts about what form their school ground and neighbourhood parks might take. Using a variety of arts-based approaches (e.g., clay, videos, drawing, murals) allows students to engage in creative visioning that will communicate their perspectives and priorities to the landscape architect and design team to help inform the final design. 

Evergreen’s Child-Friendly Participatory Design process in action  

Climate Ready Schools, Irma Coulson Public School Pilot Project 

Location: Irma Coulson Public School, Halton District School Board, Milton, Ontario
Year: 2022
Size: 4.0 acres
Age Range: Kindergarten to Grade 8
Number of Students: 976
Project Partners: Halton District School Board, Irma Coulson Public School 

The Irma Coulson Climate Ready Model School Project in Milton, Ontario became Canada’s first ever Climate Ready School in 2022.  Evergreen partnered with the Halton District School Board to transform their school grounds into a park-like environment where children can learn, develop and grow in a healthy and stimulating setting. Evergreen’s design approach prioritized input from the whole school community and, most importantly, the students. One of the necessary components was to build capacity within the school teaching staff to support them in gathering information from students to influence and inform the design. Evergreen shared inspiration through international examples of green school grounds, conducted user surveys, used video storytelling and walked with students on the site. Students completed drawing and writing exercises that provided valuable input to the final design. 

Process Highlights 

  • Evergreen co-created a student engagement process with a small group of eight lead teachers. 
  • Lead teachers trained the rest of school’s teachers on the process. Teachers proceeded to engage their respective classes. 
  • Student ideas were captured for sharing and sent to the landscape architect and design team to incorporate into the development of concept sketches and the final design. 

In addition to student participation in the design process, one of the key objectives of the project was to engage students in some aspect of site construction. This happened in June 2022 when students were invited inside the construction hoarding to plant the first of the trees and shrubs on the site. 


Climate Ready Schools, Irma Coulson Public School Pilot Project Case Study (2023) 

School Design Team at Lord Lansdowne and da Vinci School 

Location: Lord Lansdowne and da Vinci School, Toronto District School Board, Toronto, Ontario
Year: 2019
Size: 1.5 acres
Age Range: Kindergarten to Grade 6
Number of Students: 338
Project Partners: Toronto District School Board, Lord Lansdowne and da Vinci School 

n 2019, Evergreen, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and Lord Lansdowne and da Vinci School collaborated to centre children’s voices in a school ground transformation process aimed at creating a refreshed outdoor environment with meaningful opportunities for play and learning. Evergreen took a School Design Team (10 students in Grades 4-6 and four teachers) through a child-led, teacher supported approach, building their skills and confidence to lead a whole school visioning process. The School Design Team facilitated classroom activities with over 400 students and hosted workshops with the surrounding community, external partners and NGOs, resulting in a transformed and engaging outdoor space. 

Process Highlights 

  • Evergreen facilitated a child-led, adult-supported approach to whole school engagement including staff, students and parents in brainstorming activities and idea generation to co-create a master plan for the school grounds that included soft surfaces, natural play materials and features such as plantings, logs, sand, water and topography. All design elements supported children’s developmental needs and built upon the inquiry approach to learning. 
  • The School Design Team presented their school ground transformation work to a packed audience at City Hall Members Lounge for National Child Day, 2019. 
  • Evergreen worked with teaching staff to co-design a toolkit of methods and techniques for engaging students, teachers and staff in the participatory design process. 
Birch Cliff Quarry Lands 

Location: Toronto, Ontario
Year: 2021
Size: 19.0 acres
Age Range: Grade 1 to 8 
Number of Students: 250
Project Partners: Diamond Kilmer, City of Toronto, Blantyre Public School

n 2021, Scarborough’s Birch Cliff Quarry Lands, a long-time vacant park space, was being redeveloped into a mix of public and privately-owned public spaces. In partnership with the City of Toronto and Diamond Kilmer Development and through collaboration with the Blantyre Public School, Evergreen helped bringing the voices of children and young people to the consultation process by implementing a child-friendly approach to placemaking. 

Process Highlights 

Working closely with design and child-friendly engagement specialists from Trophic Design and Recreate Place, students from Grade 1 – 8 participated in a series of workshops and activities in each of their classes. They spent time reflecting and imagining, designing and developing their ideas for a child-friendly park focusing on nature and accessibility for all park users. 


Children’s recommendations and concepts can be seen in this video: Child-Friendly Park Consultation and the Quarry Lands (2021) 

Neighbourhood Nature Play 

Location: Gzowski Park and Kingsdale Park, Kitchener, Ontario 
Year: 2016-2019 
Size: 15.8 acres, 3.2 acres 
Age Range: All
Number of Students: 1,000+
Project Partners: City of Kitchener, Waterloo Region District School Board, Lyle. S. Hallman Family Foundation

Imagine over 1,000 children from local schools engaging as city builders in the redevelopment of two local parks! This happened in 2016 through Evergreen’s Neighbourhood Nature Play initiative, in partnership with the City of Kitchener. This child-centred, family friendly and community-based placemaking effort engaged children and local communities in nature play activities and seasonal park festivals, leading to reimagined park spaces and an increase in people using those parks to gather, share meals and host their own community events. The experience has influenced the City’s future approach to park planning, design and programming. 

Process Highlights 

  • Local is important! This initiative aligned seamlessly with the City’s neighbourhood strategy and their emerging strategy around inclusive public spaces and placemaking. 
  • Children are experts! Evergreen used animation and co-design methods to plan, program, design, implement and steward child-centered nature-play environments. Children’s design ideas included the incorporation of large sand play areas, climbing logs, seating and fire pits, tree planting and simple, natural elements to help them get active and use their imagination (e.g., loose parts including wood cookies cut from logs, branches, sticks, lumber and pieces of rope). 


The Power of Play: Child-Led Placemaking in Parks (2019) 


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